Friday, November 11, 2011

Like them apples?

Apples grown in western Massachusetts

The harvest season in New England is rich in the produce that is depicted with nostalgia, and sometimes tasted only at this time of year. The apple, that lowly fruit so common that even McDonalds sells them now, could be in danger of being so highly commercialized that, like milk, what was once the image of wholesome, natural food is muted in all of its original flavor and food value. In an Ingmar Bergman film, a meal of raw milk and apples is treated as rustic ambrosia. The variety available from a fast food outlet does not taste like this, but you can still get real apples in western Massachusetts.

The problem with commercial apples is how few varieties are grown, and the qualities that commercial growers prize them for are not what endear them to eaters. I want taste, an acidic bite, a dry, crisp texture. I want different kinds of apples: little mild ones to pack in my husband’s lunch, and big zesty ones that hold their shape when I bake them into pie. Ugly, flavorful apples that make me feel like a clever insider for knowing that a knobby Russet exists despite its unlovely mug because it has a winning personality worth propagating.

The website Orange Pippin, no doubt named for Cox’s Orange Pippin, a variety of apple, describes an exhaustive list of apple varieties on their website, including such western Massachusetts favorites as the Mutsu, Rhode Island Greening, Ananas Reinette, and Knobby Russet, as well as the more widely known varieties like Macoun, Empire, Gala, and Golden Delicious. The images, while lovely, don’t give a sense of scale. Here are a Mutsu, which typically weigh about a pound each, beside its tiny cousin, the Ananas Reinette.

Ananas Reinette, left, and a Mutsu apple, right
During apple season at my neighborhood co-op, the produce manager hangs a chalkboard with the number of varieties of apples available for sale that day: forty-three on the day I visited. “These were all harvested a month ago,” Joe Stan told me, indicating the baskets of local apples from Dwight Miller, Apex Orchards, and Scott Farm, among other local orchards. “And they’ll fill orders through March.”

The secrets to storing your apples, according to Joe Stan, are low humidity and a cool temperature, around forty degrees. If you plan to cellar your own apples, choose unblemished specimens only--use the ones with nicks and bruises, don’t store them. Wrap each storing apple in a clean sheet of newspaper to prevent the apples from touching one another, and store in a dark, dry place in the cellar. For cooking apples, you can peel, core, and slice even imperfect apples, then either cook them gently, cool, and freeze for pie filling, or put the slices in a food dehydrator or warm oven until they are beyond leathery to brittle. Dried apples reconstitute well in porridge and stews.

I've been experimenting with gluten-free alternatives to the classic apple pie. Here are a butternut custard pie with a "crust" of sliced apples, and an apple pie recipe from Real Food Forager that uses a pecan meal crust.
Butternut custard pie with a crust made from thinly sliced, peeled apples
This apple crumble pie is made with a pecan crust
Another tasty way to enjoy the local apple harvest all year round is as cider. A local vendor, West County Cider, produces ciders from several named varieties. They range from dry to sweet, and the crisper ones are like champagne. Much drier than the sweet, fresh cider you give the kids, and an excellent alternative to wine or beer at Thanksgiving or any harvest meal.
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